Elizabeth McKenna, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, has been awarded a prestigious Carnegie Fellowship, recognizing her deep scholarship on the ways that civil society organizations can empower democracy—or threaten it. 

The Carnegie Corporation today announced its 2024 class in the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program from universities across the United States. Another Harvard University faculty member, Taeku Lee, the Bau Family Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, also was named one of this year’s 28 Carnegie Fellows.  

The fellowship, founded in 2015, was paused in 2023 to allow a shift toward addressing political polarization, which Carnegie President Dame Louise Richardson described as a driver of the frightening fragility of American democracy. “We would like to understand this polarization, what caused it, what perpetuates it, and above all, how it might be mitigated or even reversed by strengthening the forces of cohesion in our society,” Richardson said last year in announcing the new focus. 

Liz McKenna headshot
Liz McKenna

“I’m so honored and grateful to be named a 2024 Carnegie Fellow,” McKenna said. “Democracy is facing critical threats in the United States and around the world, and it is increasingly clear that responding to these threats by simply mobilizing people—even in large numbers—is insufficient to meet the challenges of our time. The fellowship will support research I’ve been doing in partnership with social movement practitioners who want to move beyond immediate reaction, organize constituencies across lines of difference, and create a political system and policies that work for the many rather than the few.” 

Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf said, “Liz McKenna is more than just a world-class scholar. She also brings a passion for understanding how organizations in civil society can shape political power. Together, these qualities make her an ideal Carnegie Fellow as the program takes on the global threat of polarization.” 

McKenna’s close study of civil society and community organizations and their impact on democracy underpinned her first book in 2014, Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America. In 2021, she was a coauthor of Prisms of the People: Power and Organizing in 21st Century America, recipient of the Michael Harrington Book Award, which recognizes how political science scholarship can help improve democracy.

McKenna joined the Kennedy School faculty in 2022 from a postdoc fellowship at John Hopkins University. She earned her doctorate in sociology in 2020 and her master’s in sociology in 2015 from the University of California, Berkeley, and received her undergraduate degree from Harvard in 2008, graduating with high honors in social studies and winning the Thomas T. Hoopes Prize. Her doctoral dissertation, titled The Revolution Will Be Organized: Power and Protest in Brazil’s New Republic, 1988-2018, won the 2021 American Sociological Association Dissertation Award. 

Previously, McKenna worked as an organizer for Barack Obama in both his presidential campaigns and for the Center for Digital Inclusion in Brazil among an array of community roles, developing deep personal experience with social movements that helped inform her rigorous academic research.  

McKenna is a residential faculty member at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University and is an affiliate with the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and Center for Public Leadership as well as the Sociology Department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Center for American Political Studies.  

This year’s 28 Carnegie Fellows were chosen from a record field of more than 360 nominations. Fellows receive a $200,000 stipend to support research that can “help Americans understand how and why our society has become so polarized and what we can do to strengthen forces of cohesion.” 

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James F. Smith